Lon Babby dishes on tanking, finding a star and the end of the Nash era

Posted by on October 8th, 12:36 am

Lon Babby is searching for the Suns' next star but will not tank to find him. (Photo by Michael Schwartz/ValleyoftheSuns)

Lon Babby is searching for the Suns’ next star but will not tank to find him. (Photo by Michael Schwartz/ValleyoftheSuns)

PHOENIX — Back in 2010 the Phoenix Suns embarked on a franchise-altering offseason without a general manager, instead seemingly making decisions on the fly once Amare Stoudemire fled for the Big Apple.

Lon Babby was hired shortly thereafter as the Suns’ president of basketball operations and has now had two years to take inventory of the team, create financial flexibility and cultivate a plan for dealing with Steve Nash’s free agency and the ensuing rebuilding project.

The first stage of that plan was enacted this summer as Babby and his staff finally bid adieu to the Nash era by cutting ties with Two Time and Grant Hill before acquiring a host of young players and draft picks to kick start this new era of Suns basketball.

“I think we accomplished a lot,” Babby said last week at Media Day about this offseason. “I think we’ve answered a lot of questions that have been lingering about the franchise in terms of one, did we have a plan? I think, you know, obviously the flexibility we created this summer was the result of two years of planning.

“Can we attract free agents here? There’s nobody really that we wanted that we weren’t able to get. People were wildly enthusiastic about being here, so that’s not an issue. Obviously we’re willing to spend the money to be as good as we can be.

“We’ve put in place new training stuff to make it world class as opposed to just the best in the NBA. We have a tremendous renewed emphasis on player development. We’ve got 10 draft choices the next three years. We brought in a lot of good young talent and mixed in we think enough veteran leadership to turn the page and begin to usher in a new era of Suns basketball.

“That’s a lot to accomplish in one summer.”

Indeed it is, but with the organization short on star power and long on future assets there’s much work left to be done.

Searching for the next star

The most important aspect of my discussion with Babby revolved around how this organization plans to attract a bonafide stud to replace the star power the Suns have lost in Nash and Amare the last few years.

Save for the 2004 Detroit Pistons, nearly every NBA champion throughout history has possessed at least one elite franchise player if not two or three, and even those Pistons rostered a handful of All-Stars.

The NBA is a star’s league, and never has that been more true than today with trios and quartets of stars aligning in Los Angeles, Miami and Oklahoma City.

“You have to keep looking,” Babby said about the Suns’ hunt for a star. “You don’t know where it’s going to come from, whether it be a trade, a draft choice, you just don’t know. You have to keep looking. … All you want to do is be in a position to seize opportunities.”

The Suns were in position this offseason with enough salary cap space to dangle a max offer at Eric Gordon even after verbally agreeing to deals with Goran Dragic and Michael Beasley.

However, Gordon never came close to being a Sun because New Orleans had no interest in playing ball on a sign-and-trade deal and always planned on matching.

“We did look into it,” Babby said of the sign-and-trade. “I wasn’t going to give up — we asked them and they had no interest in it. It wouldn’t have made any sense to try to do that and take one step forward and two steps back to give them enough to satisfy them. Obviously we explored it, but there was never any legs to it.”

The experience of having cap space tied up for three days did not turn Babby off of the idea of making a run at another max restricted free agent next summer because after I brought up the fact that it’s risky to tie that much cap room up in a deal that is something of a long shot, Babby said, “It’s risky if you are going to lose other opportunities while you’re waiting.”

That wasn’t the case this offseason as the Suns amnestied Josh Childress to make room for Luis Scola while waiting for the Hornets to match so they could get their cap space back. Meanwhile, shooting guards O.J. Mayo and Courtney Lee remained on the market while the Gordon saga played out before both wings ultimately chose to sign elsewhere.

All of Phoenix seems to have its collective eye on former Sun Devil James Harden, the kind of elite player this franchise desperately needs and an impending restricted free agent, but personally I don’t see there being much of a chance that Oklahoma City lets him go. Although Babby did not mention any specific future restricted targets, in no way was he deterred about going that route again next season.

With next summer potentially being Phoenix’s last with max cap room depending on the decisions the front office makes, time is running out if that big star is going to come through free agency.

In the meantime, all the organization can do is continue to make Phoenix as attractive a destination as possible for a potential stud like the situation was for Nash eight years ago with Amare, Matrix and Joe Johnson all waiting for him.

“Well, we have all the pieces around when that star comes,” Babby said. “But there shouldn’t be any doubt about our ability to attract the star. That’s been answered, and we proved we can recruit them and attract them and sign them.”

Why the Suns won’t tank

Personally, I have been conflicted on the tanking issue throughout the last year. Babby is not.

I see the Suns as a franchise that has been stuck on the treadmill of mediocrity the last two years, good enough to compete for a playoff spot but not bad enough to “earn” a draft pick high enough to select a blue-chipper.

With Nash a Laker, this season in theory would provide the perfect time to stink. Most NBA analysts think that will happen anyway, so perhaps this is a moot point, but by acquiring a player like Scola and adding a vet like Jermaine O’Neal the Suns hardly followed the Charlotte Bobcats’ path to Tankville this offseason.

“The rules are what they are,” Babby said. “What do you want us to do? Do you want us to be bad so we can get good? Are you willing to live through two, three, four seasons? Everybody’s conflicted. It’s conflicted if you end up with Durant. You’re not conflicted if you end up with Oden. And the torture of going through it. We just have to figure out a better way.”

I have never been around an organization that tanks, and not even the New Orleans Hornets last season would admit to taking that course. Although being bad to be good sounds nice in theory, especially when you so desperately need to acquire a star, have you ever thought about what it must be like to go through that every day?

How can you get better as an organization if winning isn’t the top priority? How can young players develop when losing is accepted and even appreciated by upper management? Obviously players play hard no matter what because they are still playing for their livelihood, but how does the concept of tanking impact a team’s culture?

“How do you go to work every day and how do you lead a group of people both in an organization and players playing to make their living when either the conscious message or the subliminal message is ‘We want to lose’?” Babby asked. “I don’t know how to do that. So does that condemn us to purgatory for longer? I hope not. Could you come to work every day if you thought your boss was trying to be bad? How long does that take and how many front offices use it as an excuse?”

That’s about as strong a reason not to tank as I’ve ever heard, and for an executive entering the final year of his contract obviously it’s not the path he can afford to chart. As much as I worry about the Suns continuing to jog on the treadmill of mediocrity if they are good enough to be mediocre this season and as nice as a top-five pick would be for this team’s future, I cannot imagine the kind of negative externalities that would permeate an organization’s culture when the subliminal message is “We want to lose.”

The Suns made moves to improve this offseason yet clearly they are at least one franchise player and possibly a supporting star away from being a legitimate contender unless one of their current players grows into that secondary star role one day.

Babby acknowledged that tanking is both the easiest and laziest path to try to find that star, but he cannot stomach the thought of striving for a deplorable record to get there.

Trading the sun, moon and stars

One of the biggest criticisms I often hear of Babby involves how he could go from calling Nash the sun, moon and stars of the franchise every chance he got around the trade deadline to not even making a legitimate offer to keep him once free agency commenced.

“He was the sun, the moon and the stars in the context of ‘Are you going to trade him?’” Babby said. “And I always said we weren’t going to trade him, and we didn’t trade him. He was the sun and the moon and the stars, it’s just a new galaxy now. I don’t think there’s anything inconsistent about that.”

Babby reiterated that it was difficult to see a path whereby the organization could pay Nash what he deserves, add another quality point guard that the basketball operations staff felt it needed if the Suns were to re-sign the aging vet and improve the roster to a degree that it would be worth bringing Nash back.

“It was a matter of math,” Babby said. “It was time, it just had run its natural course. People will say we waited too long, and I don’t agree with that. I think we just had to — first of all it took us two years to maneuver to where we were [in terms of cap space], but also just he deserved the opportunity to let it run its course as long as he was committed, which he always was.

“Things run a natural course, and I’m very proud of how we handled that and treated him with dignity and respect.”

Babby also does not feel there was anything inconsistent with how he dealt with Robin Lopez’s situation after he said in May that “the message I would send out is it is quite likely if not certain that we’re going to match because he’s an important asset for us.”

“Someone said we were going to match on Robin Lopez?” Babby asked about this complaint. “That’s how we were able to maintain the leverage to trade him because we would have matched.”

I wrote a number of times that signing Lopez to a fair long-term deal made no sense after the Dragic and Beasley signings because of how it would limit the organization’s financial flexibility the next few offseasons when finding a star should be of paramount concern. The Suns played their cards perfectly in this situation to recoup a couple assets in Wes Johnson and the first-round pick while ditching Hakim Warrick’s 2012-13 salary.

Overall, the Suns lost their franchise player and struck out on their big move to acquire an Olympic-caliber player to replace him this summer, but unlike two offseasons ago they made a series of sensible decisions in acquiring Dragic and Scola and consummating the Lopez trade while taking a gamble on a talent like Beasley to provide a foundation for this rebuilding project.

We know the Suns need to add an elite player to become legitimate contenders again and that they won’t tank to find him. Instead Babby is focused on making savvy moves to build the kind of team a superstar can make a difference on.

“Just keep making smart decisions and eventually they pile up and you’re successful,” he said.

Michael Schwartz founded ValleyoftheSuns in October 2008 and is the owner/editor emeritus of the site. He is currently working toward his MBA in sports business at San Diego State University.

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Tags: Lon Babby · Phoenix Suns · Phoenix Suns Analysis

25 responses so far ↓

  • 1 PennyAnd1 // Oct 8, 2012 at 1:23 am

    Anyone else see Nash debut in preseason opener with the Lakers? I did, and I have to say, it was chilling.

    The time Nash was on the court reminded me of the Suns run n gun 05-07′, but with Kobe. Seeing that made me so sad. I can’t believe in the middle of last season, Suns fans were actually pushing to trade Nash. Nash is unique player, and I wish Suns FO would’ve treated him better so that he’d stay. Nash would’ve done miracles with Beasley & Scola on board i’ll tell you that much.

    Good for you Nash. You deserve a title shot.

    I don’t know about you guys, but as much as I hate Lakers, but i’ll be rooting for Nash.

  • 2 Scott // Oct 8, 2012 at 2:01 am

    @Penny -

    I’ll be rooting for Nash except when he’s against the Suns. :)

  • 3 Fan in Chi Town // Oct 8, 2012 at 2:24 am

    I hate the Lakers and I cannot root for them.

  • 4 Jason A. // Oct 8, 2012 at 9:33 am

    The Lakers (including Nash) can eat shit. But I’ll be there 1/30 and I’ll cheer him when he’s introduced. And that will be the last time until he’s inducted into the Ring Of Honor.

  • 5 A-ROCK // Oct 8, 2012 at 10:08 am

    Stop boo hooin @ PennyAnd1 Nash was no good for the Suns and he new it, he needed a new squad and revigeration…. See he cut his hair and I am sure no one is as happy as Nash is and I’m sure he doesn’t have one thought about Phx now that he is in Cali…that’s hard to say! Let that man live you wimp, He even made a commercial of him grabbing a beer from a car in Cali which hasn’t happened in Phx so don’t be the only one sulking cuz he is not.

  • 6 PennyAnd1 // Oct 8, 2012 at 12:38 pm

    @A-Rock

    All teams are good with Nash on the team. I doubt Nash has forgotten about PHX. Phoenix is his home, and I don’t know about you but I’m proud to have Nash representing Suns (the run n’ gun) and showing LA how it was done in Phoenix. Nash is one of a kind, and no one will ever fill his shoe (greatest Sun ever).

    About his haircut? He came into the league with that haircut, I think it’s only fitting that he ends his career with that same haircut. Besides the haircut Nash was stylin’ here in Phoenix was the best and coolest, so no way he ain’t bringing that style in LA. He’s leaving his best in Phoenix and starting a new one in LA.

    Show some respect. It’s not Nash’s fault for leaving Phoenix anyways. People wanted to trade him last season, that includes you. Then FO didn’t prioritized him so he was technically forced to leave, Suns will regret. Nash hasn’t regressed at all, his team did. I guarantee you that.

  • 7 PennyAnd1 // Oct 8, 2012 at 12:43 pm

    I just hope that when Nash comes back to play against Phoenix people would chant “Thank You Nash”. I know I will. How could you not give the man respect after all the blood, sweat, and tears the man went through. A PG that everyone underestimate cause he was white, wasn’t athletic, or was prone to injury. Greatest Sun ever, nuff said.

  • 8 Steve Nash // Oct 8, 2012 at 1:06 pm

    Phoenix will always be my home. I miss it already.

  • 9 A-ROCK // Oct 8, 2012 at 1:10 pm

    They wanted to trade Nash last year so I was RIGHT! hehe
    We are not talking about Nash anymore it is a New era for PHX as well as Nash.
    Shall we die in mediocrity as Nash lives you buster!

  • 10 black hole sun // Oct 9, 2012 at 10:13 am

    Lon Babby: What do you want me to do?

    Make tough decisions when necessary to improve the team and build a sustainable winner.

    1)Everyone loved Steve Nash in a Suns uniform, but you had his replacement in Goran Dragic already on the team. The transition was in place, but you botched it up by trading Dragic, not trading Nash at the suitable time and then resigning Dragic. Nash could have been used to expedite a flexible cap situation and wasn’t.

    2) Stop signing middling free agents that no Suns fan wants to root for because you believe you are fooling us into believing you want to win. No one who promotes cap flexibility or winning signs Beasley to the deal you did.

    We want you to be accountable for your decisions instead of making excuses for the competitive landscape. If you don’t have the creativity to find new methods for sustainable team building or are to dense to follow existing paths established by Utah, San Antonio and Oklahoma City then do everyone a favor and step aside to find someone else who will.

  • 11 Slap Dog Hoops // Oct 9, 2012 at 10:46 am

    I don’t necessarily think Phoenix needs to tank the season. They have some talented players and they may possibly surprise some people. Goran Dragic is gonna be an All Star for sure. The same will go for Michael Beasley too. Luis Scola adds veteran leadership along with scoring in the paint. Let’s not forget the team’s star player Marcin Gortat who can be put down for 15 and 10 per game as well.

  • 12 PennyAnd1 // Oct 9, 2012 at 12:13 pm

    @black hole sun

    On the contrary, Babby sure did the right think by not trading the popular Sun Steve Nash. Trading Dragic was a mistake for sure.

  • 13 black hole sun // Oct 9, 2012 at 1:47 pm

    @PennyAnd1

    But Babby did trade Steve Nash. Unfortunately it was in typical worst case scenario fashion, where in Babby holds on to Nash for two years too long and then trades him to the hates Lakers.

    We are two years behind what might have been a real rebuilding process because Babby didn’t have the guts to make a move he thought would be unpopular.

    Babby wants to call rebuilding through the draft, “Tanking”. I would argue that attempting to rebuild with Beasley and Scola at this time is the better definition of tanking. Even worse it’s done from a place of cowardice, with no real plan other than acquiring ill fitting mediocre assets.

  • 14 Geminid670 // Oct 9, 2012 at 6:18 pm

    Gotta go with Slap Dog. Suns will surprise and delight this season, thanks in NO small part to coach A. Gentry. This man has done a yeoman’s work ever since Dantoni bailed and through the failed Terry Porter experiment. Contract extension for Gentry should be top of the list on the ‘plan’ agenda!

  • 15 cdubbb // Oct 9, 2012 at 6:45 pm

    Can’t wait for James Harden…. OKC has no chance at keepingbhim beyond this year… he is just being diplomatic as he is still part of their franchise. When he gets that max contract offer and ability to lead a franchise, Harden is not the player to turn that down. Its just a matter of time folks…

  • 16 steve // Oct 10, 2012 at 8:25 am

    @black hole sun

    It isn’t gutsy to trade Steve Nash if you’re going to get Sasha Vujacic and a second rounder in return. How can you be so presumptuous that you assume there was some blockbuster deal the Suns turned down just for the sake of holding onto Nash?

    I was in favor of trading Nash for the past five seasons – IF the right deal came along. I don’t believe Nash is the type of player that will lead his team to the championship. As “the man,” I just don’t think he’s good enough and versatile enough. I would have been in favor of trading Nash for another alpha dog for that reason.

    However, I never even heard whispers of a deal involving Nash that would have netted the Suns any all-stars, let alone any world-class, elite alphas.

    What deal did the Suns pass up that would have been so much better than two more years of Two Time?

  • 17 Tony // Oct 10, 2012 at 1:13 pm

    @Steve,

    Nash isn’t good enough to lead his team to a championship?? Not now of course, because of his age, but it’s ridiculous to claim that he wasn’t good enough in his prime to do so. If not for bad luck, such as a bloody nose that kept him out of the critical 4th quarter against the Spurs or Colangelo selling the franchise to a total moron and penny-pincher, or if not for the infamous Horry hipcheck and subsequent suspensions of Amare and Diaw, there’s no doubt that the Suns would have won a championship by now with Nash.

    As far as Babby is concerned, this guy does not deserve any Suns fans’ trust. This one quote he made sums up how dishonest he truly is- “He [Nash] was the sun and the moon and the stars, it’s just a new galaxy now.” This one quote epitomizes Babby’s dishonesty because instead of showing some integrity and admitting that he shouldn’t of labeled Nash as such, instead he argues that an entire new set of circumstances were presented and Nash’s importance in this new “galaxy” wasn’t as germane as it was in the past. However, what Babby so conveniently ignores is that the circumstances changed because of him!

    This Babby guy is quite the weasal, as further demonstrated by his treatment of Lopez. To go from stessing how important Lopez was to the organization, even taking the time to put together a comic book featuring Lopez, and then just a month later to trade him because he was unwilling to offer what Lopez wanted, is further evidence of Babby’s insincerity and lack of conviction behind what he says.

  • 18 steve // Oct 10, 2012 at 2:38 pm

    “[Excuses]…[excuses]…[excuses]… There’s no doubt that the Suns would have won a championship by now.”

    Perhaps in your mind, but that’s completely unfactual. In the bloody nose game, it would have been a VERY improbable comeback if the Suns had won that game. I’m just going off the top of my head, so correct me if I’m misremembering something, but I believe the Suns were down by about five in the final minute of the game. Even though the Suns were on a roll, the chances of winning a game you’re losing by 5 in the final minute have got to be VERY low. Maybe in the 5% range, just as a guess. A 5% chance is far from a certainty.

    The penny-pincher you refer to signed some critical assets that helped make big runs in the playoffs, including three trips to the WCF. Kurt Thomas, Boris Diaw, Jared Dudley, Channing Frye, Tim Thomas, just to name a few, were all brought in by Sarver’s guys. Without their contributions, Nash and Amare might not have got it done. You can’t pretend as if the entire team was comprised of Nash.

    The Horry hipcheck was low of Horry, but Amare and Diaw were idiots for getting off the bench. Everyone with half a brain knows not to get involved in “altercations” in the playoffs, ESPECIALLY if you’re not on the court. And again, even ater that game 4 win, the series was tied 2-2, and SA had already beaten the Suns in PHX. That was far from a lock for the Suns to win that series. Not only that, but there were two series after the SA series left to win. You never know what injuries might occur (Amare blows a knee, Nash’s back gives out) that could shift a series. Plus, the Suns could have just flat out lost to either of their next opponents, even if they seemed like the better team.

    All that to say one thing: the fact is that Steve Nash has never and will never win the championship as the alpha on his team. Facts seem to agree with me more than you on this one.

  • 19 Tony // Oct 10, 2012 at 2:57 pm

    @Steve,

    once again you equate your opinion as fact despite the exorbinant degree of ignorance. Firstly, I have to take issue when you credit Sarver for signing Frye, Thomas, and Diaw when the cause of doing so was because of Sarver’s refusal to sign JJ, who is still better than any of those other players, Marion, and of course Amare. Have your delusions about Sarver’s ownership become even worse over the off-season? I’m astonished that you believe Diaw, Dudley, or Thomas were better choices than JJ, Marion, and Amare. But since you’re a Sarver supporter, it’s not surprising you would believe as such.

    Next, your memory is no doubt just as shaky. The Suns were in total control in that series against the Spurs and so what if the Spurs beat the Suns at home before. What does that have to do with anything? The Suns also beat the Spurs at home and on the road. So please Steve, do me a favor and instead of pretending that your opinion is fact, why don’t you just admit that your affinity for Sarver has prejudiced you against any objectivity in favor of skewing Suns history to favor Sarver?

  • 20 black hole sun // Oct 10, 2012 at 3:06 pm

    It would have been gutsy to trade Steve Nash before he requested it. It would have taken guts to trade a player that was so universally respected and even loved by the fan base.

    All the Suns needed from a Nash trade was a young player that was worth building with an maybe a draft pick, that deal was out there for Nash. Not to mention that Suns fans wouldn’t have to watch Nash play in a Lakers jersey.

    You can look back at the decision making of the worst teams of the last 20 years and see that Babby is following a similar blueprint. Suns fans deserve more.

  • 21 steve // Oct 10, 2012 at 3:23 pm

    @Tony- When did I say my opinion was fact?

    You said, “There’s no doubt that the Suns would have won a championship by now.”

    NO DOUBT. Meaning, your opinion is fact. Are you sure you weren’t getting mad at yourself? Let’s just try to remember what I said to be sure I didn’t claim my opinion was fact like you did…

    I said, “it would have been a VERY improbable comeback,” “just as a guess,” “Nash and Amare might not have got it done,” “That was far from a lock,” “You never know…”

    Those sound like qualifiers to me, indicating that I understand what I am saying is subjective.

    What I said the word “fact” about was the FACT that Steve Nash didn’t win the big one. “The fact is that Steve Nash has never and will never win the championship as the alpha on his team.” I’m fairly certain Nash will retire as a Laker and that he won’t be the alpha of the team, so how is what I’m saying wrong?

    I said I don’t think he was good enough to win as an alpha. You said he was (not that you thought he was). The fact is that he tried to win a championship as an alpha and failed (the team failed as well). Who do you think has the more reasonable opinion on the matter?

    @black hole sun

    “that deal was out there for Nash”

    Really? What deals were there? I didn’t keep up with the trade rumors, so I’m honestly out of the loop and not in the know. So, in seriousness, what were the deals? Steve Nash for Russell Westbrook and a second rounder? Steve Nash for Rondo and a first rounder? Steve Nash for Josh Howard and cash considerations? I am in doubt that there were any offers for Nash involving young all-stars, and that’s what it would have taken for the deal to make sense.

    And if you’re not Tony, welcome.

  • 22 Luka // Oct 12, 2012 at 5:12 am

    The Suns should’ve moved Nash the moment Sarver drove Kerr, Griffin and Amare out of town. That was the time to acquire young talent, a pick, and maybe a bit of cap relief for Nash. The longer they delayed, the more those opportunities dried up.

    The Suns tried to have it both ways the past two seasons, and the end result is a delayed re-build. I’ll give Babby credit for finally getting the Suns heading in some direction, but it could’ve been done better.

    I disagree with his philosophy on tanking as well. No other team would do a re-build in such a half-assed way. You gut the team, and struggle by default for a few years. Look what the Thunder/Sonics did. They got rid of everyone and sucked it up for a little while. It’s common sense. And they had a lock-out season with less turnaround time. I’m not buying it Babby, spare us the pride BS. When you’ve got an owner as dumb and disloyal as Sarver pride goes out the window very early in the ball game.

  • 23 steve // Oct 12, 2012 at 7:03 am

    The thunder struck gold in three straight lotteries and once in the second round in a matter of just a few years. That’s not likely to be duplicated. That said, I am more prone to believe building should start with the draft, but it’s not just as simple as saying, “we’ll just suck for a few years until we draft that all-world franchise stud.”

  • 24 alroy // Oct 15, 2012 at 3:01 pm

    suns will be riding the fence of mediocrity for a LONG time with this management and strategy – I’m sorry, but a contending team does not sign Michael Beasely to that contract – ever.

  • 25 ValleyoftheSuns Live: The Suns are officially tanking & more on the Morris twins // Mar 27, 2013 at 8:00 pm

    [...] The move goes against what president of basketball operations Lon Babby said this offseason. Though the context was regarding the Suns’ season as a whole and not a single game, Babby said he was against tanking, as Michael Schwartz wrote in October. [...]

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